Thanks in part to rapid industrialisation in the mid-seventeenth century in Tyneside, the Chares of old Newcastle town were full of poverty, disease and serious organised crime. Having recently endured the bubonic plague (1636) which had wiped out nearly one-third of the population. The survivors not only had to put up with abysmal living conditions. (Forty-percent of all households had no proper source of heat) they had also been caught up in the English Civil War, which had resulted in the bloody siege of Newcastle.
The Puritans Move In
During the English Civil War, Newcastle became an important source of wealth for King Charles I, thanks to its highly profitable coal mine. When Charles I made the mistake of forcing the English Prayer Book on all of Scotland. London merchants jumped at the opportunity to take away one of the king's most profitable hubs and the battle for control of the strategic town of Newcastle began. Along with their alternative take on the Bible, the Scottish Covenanters also brought with them a fear of witchcraft that would have cataclysmic consequences for the people of old Newcastle town.
A Fear of Witches Builds
It is important to keep this in the context of the 17th century, rather than 21st century beliefs. The vast majority of the population at that time would already have an ingrained belief in demonology and witchcraft. Witches and demons existed in their world, period, and so it isn’t hard to understand how the Covenanters (sometimes also called Puritans) interpretation of the Bible fanned the flames of suspicion. They cited passages such as "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" from Exodus, and took in a very literal sense. It wasn’t long before the services of witch-finders, or witch-prickers were called upon. A rogue witch-pricker from north of the border saw Newcastle as an easy target to make some money and moved into the area to "root out local witches" in 1649.
The Puritan's of the Corporation welcomed the arrival of the witch-pricker as an opportunity to set the locals against one another and help them vent their frustrations on each other rather than the Puritans themselves. The Magistrate's Bellman was sent around town letting everyone know of the pricker's existence and was responsible for bringing forward any complaints held against possible witches around town. A total of 30 people were brought in front of the pricker for the suspicion of witchcraft.
Forcing the "Witches" to Confess
Witch-prickers or witch-finders were not afraid to use barbaric means to get the “witches” that they captured "witches" to confess to their crimes. They would often deprive the poor souls of sleep and make them walk around for hours until they finally broke, sealing their fate. Possible witches were also subject to humiliation when determining their final verdict. They were often stripped to look for "witch marks" which would then be pricked for blood. If the mark did not bleed, they were a witch and would be tried as such. What people didn't know was that many witch-hunters relied on retractable bodkins to press witch marks to ensure they did not bleed and that the hunter could collect their pay.
Each of the 30 suspects were brought before the pricker and tested for witchcraft. A total of 27 of the 30 accused witches were marked as guilty and set to be hanged. Out of the 27 several were spared thanks to the intervention of select townspeople such as Lieutenant Colonel Hobson.
The Spared Witch
Most of the women tried were described as "old crones", not the most attractive to behold and well past their prime, but the final woman was quite different. She was young, and described by Lieutenant Colonel Hobson as "handsome". Hobson watched on in horror as the witch-pricker pulled up the woman's clothes, exposing her to the onlooking crowd. He supposedly pricked her on the thigh, and the woman admitted that she felt nothing and the Bodkin came away clean with no blood to show. Hobson, sensing that a trick was being used, implored first that the woman not be tried at all, but when that didn't work he asked that she be tested again in a more appropriate manner. The second bodkin prick happened in plain sight and caused the woman to bleed proving her innocence to the group. Even though Hobson intervened and tried helping some of the other accused, 17 women and a single man were all executed by hanging on the Town Moor in August of 1650.
A Time for Persecution
Unfortunately, the idea of persecuting witches by executing and torturing them wasn't only limited to England or the well-known Salem Witch trials of 1692. In 1609-1611 Spanish Inquisitors in the Basque area of Spain, vowed to rid themselves of all witches, and examined over 7,000 possible cases. A group of 31 “witches” suffered a harsh fate in Lograno with many tortured, publicly punished and a few burned at the stake. However, these trials resulted in the end of most supposed witch deaths in Spain, long before they ended in other countries around the world. While most people, today would be incredulous at the notion of “witches” practising their dark arts in the local community. Ignorance and a resistance to alternative treatments and healing as well as major social unrest and uncertainty all fed into the tinder box that made the 17th Century, one of the darkest of all times.
About this blog
An exploration of the world of Ingrid Hall - book reviews and a little bit of Newcastle history. They do say variety is the spice of life!